Judge Paul Pritchard never backs down, except for this one time at band camp...
"You wanna be the best, you gotta take out the best!"
The original Never Back Down was really nothing more than a rehash of The Karate Kid aimed at a slightly older audience. It was also pretty lame. Still, it did enough business to warrant a sequel, it seems, and so here we are with Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown. Just to be on the safe side, let's not let our expectations get too high. Okay?
Facts of the Case
A passion for the "Savage Science" brings together a group of young fighters, under the tutelage of ex-MMA star Case Walker (Michael Jai White, Blood and Bone). Each has his own reasons for fighting: Justin (MMA fighter Scottie Epstein) is tired of being bullied, while Tim (UFC fighter Todd Duffee) fights to help support his mom. Newcomers to the group, Mike (Dean Geyer) and Zack (Alex Meraz), come to Case to with a desire to better themselves so that they may stand a chance in "The Beatdown," a brutal MMA tournament held annually to find the best fighter.
Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown suffers a similar fate to its predecessor, in that it insists on mixing its violence with a formulaic teen-centric plot. I suppose the fact that Chris Hauty is back on writing duties should have set the alarm bells ringing, but the presence of Michael Jai White, both in front of and behind the camera, had raised my hopes for something more.
Hauty's screenplay stumbles from one scene to the next with all the grace of a punch-drunk pugilist, and crams in far too much filler material. A romance that is both unnecessary and inconsequential feels like a calculated attempt to draw in female viewers, while one character's turn to the dark side is merely a means to building up to a climactic finale; it's a shame it's so forced it actually serves as more of a distraction. A subplot involving Walker's problems with a racist cop is poorly conceived and has an improbable conclusion. Then there are the continual references to Mike's dad's homosexuality. It's played for laughs one minute, and then exploited by a female admirer the next in a bizarre courtship ritual. Oh, and word to the wise: ridiculing someone's sex life, or lack thereof, probably isn't the best way of snaring yourself a partner, no matter what Never Back Down 2 might suggest. All this means there's little time for character development. Still, that's not important, is it? Not when you can rely on your stars to stand around looking hard.
Though hampered by the screenplay, Michael Jai White manages to turn in a serviceable, if lightweight, action movie. Along with fight choreographer Larnell Stovall (Undisputed III: Redemption), White ensures the numerous fight scenes stand out as the highlight of the picture. There's a refreshing lack of fast cuts, meaning the viewer can actually see what is happening and really get a sense of impact. If anything, the fight scenes suffer from being too short on the whole, with many lasting less time than it takes to boil a kettle. Still, with the final half-hour in particular, the range of styles on show—particularly the submission-based moves—is a joy to watch for action movie fans, and the technique on show impresses. Had there been more weight to the characters, Never Back Down 2 may have been easier to recommend.
In general the acting isn't great, but certainly no worse than one would expect from the genre. In a surprising turn of events, MMA fighter Scottie Epstein turns in the most memorable performance. Playing the villainous Justin, Epstein revels in the sadistic nature of his characters, and nearly does enough to make you forget how poor his arc is.
The DVD transfer offers a colorful mix, despite the propensity for nighttime sequences. The picture is sharp, and detail levels are good. The image has a good sense of depth to it, with solid black levels. The 5.1 soundtrack also impresses as the dialogue remains crisp throughout. The score will makes good use of your subwoofer, and sound effects are clear and make good use of rear speakers.
The DVD features a commentary track, provided courtesy of Michael Jai White, Scottie Epstein, and Todd Duffee. There are a few moments when things go silent, but beyond their lively discussions on the fight scenes, there are moments of (unintentional) hilarity, such as when White tries to point out that a shot resembles the famous picture of a sailor planting a smacker on a young lady to celebrate VJ day. The only problem is White can't remember what the kiss was in aid of, which has Epstein and Duffee in fits of laughter as they throw suggestions at him, such as St Patrick's Day and New Years.
It's arguable that Never Back Down 2 is no worse than, say, Best of the Best 2, and so there's no reason why fifteen-year-old boys won't love it. Michael Jai White is a charismatic action star with real screen presence, and as a directorial debut, Never Back Down 2 is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. Hopefully next time he can ally himself with a better writer, bag himself the lead role, and give us what we all really want, Blood and Bone 2.
A worthy rental, but Never Back Down 2 is too flimsy for hardcore action junkies.
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